Education experts widely recognize that a strong early childhood education is an important factor to set kids up for success in school. But whether kindergarten is more like preschool or elementary school has long been an open question that leaves teachers caught in-between. For some children kindergarten is the first time they’ve been to school, and at five-years-old they’re still too young to shoulder the anxiety and pressure of benchmark testing. All this leaves kindergarten teachers in a tough spot -- they are required to teach an increasingly demanding set of standards, but many are also trained in child development and see the new demands as developmentally inappropriate.
Lisa Minicozzi was an elementary school principal before she went back to school for her doctorate in early childhood education. She’s now a professor of education at Adelphi University, where she instructs teachers in-training and studies effective teaching practice in classrooms. She recently published an article in the Global Studies of Childhood journal entitled “The garden is thorny: Teaching kindergarten in the age of accountability,” in which she documents how veteran kindergarten teachers navigate more rigorous expectations for students along with their own deeply held beliefs about how young children should learn.
“I have witnessed the changes myself and have felt the frustrations as an administrator and as a parent of a young child myself,” Minicozzi said of the “academic trickle down” that has affected day-to-day kindergarten routines. In classrooms that seemed to be navigating the shift well Minicozzi saw some common themes: first, the kindergarten educators had the support of administrators to determine what was developmentally appropriate.
Second, veteran teachers saw themselves as experts and were confident dissecting the standards and designing units that met them, without giving up their beliefs about how young children learn. In exemplar classrooms Minicozzi never saw kids sitting in rows for long periods of time or doing worksheets. Rather, teachers held exploration and movement at the center of the practice, essentially designing thematic project-based learning units.
“We know from educational theory what works,” Minicozzi said. “Kids should be actively engaged. They should be outside. They should be moving, exploring. They should have multiple opportunities to explore at different times.” She worries that as schools adopt Common Core State Standards school administrators will continue to push more content and direct instruction into kindergarten. She sees veteran teachers who are successfully navigating the shift as important mentors for novice teachers who will need that same strength and skill when they get into classrooms.